God Is Always Opening Doors

Author: Andrea Tornielli

God Is Always Opening Doors

Andrea Tornielli

Pope Francis in 'La Stampa'

The following is an English translation of the interview given by Pope Francis to the Italian daily newspaper 'La Stampa', published on Sunday, 15 December [2013].

"For me Christmas is hope and tenderness...". Francis talks to La Stampa and Vatican Insider about his first Christmas as Bishop of Rome.

At the Vatican's Casa Santa Marta, 12:50 p.m., Tuesday to December. The Pope receives us in a room next to the dining hall. The meeting lasts an hour and a half. Twice during the interview, that peaceful look which the world has grown accustomed to seeing on Francis' face fades away: when he talks about the innocent suffering of children and the tragedy of hunger in the world. The Pope also speaks about relations with other Christian denominations, about an "ecumenism of blood" uniting them in persecution. He touches on the issue of the family, which will be addressed at the next Synod and responds accusations from the USA that he is "a Marxist". He then gives his view of the relationship between Church and politics.

What does Christmas mean for you?

It is an encounter with Jesus. God has always sought out his people, led them, looked after them and promised always to be close to them. In the Book of Deuteronomy we read that God is walking with us; he takes us by the hand as a father does his child. This is beautiful. Christmas is the encounter between God and his people. It is also a consolation, a mystery of consolation. Many times, after Midnight Mass I have spent a few hours alone in the chapel before celebrating the Dawn Mass. I experienced deep .consolation and peace. I remember one night of prayer after mass in the Astalli Centre for refugees in Rome; it was Christmas 1974 I believe. For me Christmas has always been about this: contemplating God's visit to his people.

What does Christmas say to people today?.

It speaks to us about tenderness and hope. When God meets us he says two things. The first is: have hope. God is always opening doors, he never closes them. He is the father who opens doors for us. The second is: do not be afraid of tenderness. When Christians forget about hope and tenderness, the Church becomes cold, loses her sense of direction and is constricted by ideologies and worldly attitudes. But God's simplicity says to you: go forward, I am a Father who is holding you. I become afraid when Christians lose hope and the ability to embrace and caress. Maybe this is why, looking to the future, I often speak about children and the elderly — the most defenseless. Throughout my life as a priest, going to the parish, I always sought to transmit this tenderness to children and the elderly especially. It does me good and it makes me think of the tenderness God has for us.

How is it possible to believe that God, who is considered by religions to be infinite and all-powerful, can make himself so small?

The Greek Fathers called it syncatabasis, divine condescension, God coming down to be with us. It is one of God's mysteries. Back in 2000, in Bethlehem, John Paul II said God became a child who was entirely dependent on the care of a father and mother. This is why Christmas gives us so much joy. We don't feel alone any more; God has come down to be with us. Jesus became one of us and suffered the worst death for us, that of a criminal on the Cross.

Christmas is often portrayed as a kind of sugarcoated fairy tale. But God is born in a world where there is also a great deal of suffering and misery.

The message announced to us in the Gospels is an announcement of joy. The evangelists described a joyful moment. They don't focus on how unjust the world is, on how God could be born into such a world. All this is the fruit of our own contemplation: the poor, the child born into a precarious situation. Christmas was not a condemnation of social injustice and poverty; it was a proclamation of joy. Anything else is a conclusion that we have formed. Some of those arc correct, others less so and others. still arc just ideologies. Christmas is joy, religious joy, God's joy, an inner joy of light and peace. When you are incapable or in a human situation that doesn't allow you to you feel this joy, then you experience this feast with a mundane cheerfulness. But there is a difference between profound joy and mundane cheerfulness.

This is your first Christmas, in a world marked by conflict and war...

God never gives a gift to someone who is incapable of receiving it. If he gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it. Every single one of us, from the holiest of saints to the greatest of sinners; from the purest to the most corrupt... even a corrupt person has this capacity — granted, the poor guy may be a little rusty but he is capable nonetheless. Christmas during this time of conflict is a call from God, who is giving us this gift. Do we want to receive him or do we prefer other gifts? In a world afflicted by war, this Christmas makes me think of God's patience. God's principle virtue expressed in the Bible is that he is love. He is waiting for us; he never tires of waiting for us. He gives us the gift and then waits. This also happens in the life of each and every one of us. Some ignore him. But God is patient and God is peace; the serenity of Christmas Eve is a reflection of God's patience with us.

This coming January marks the 50th anniversary of Paul VI's historic visit to the Holy Land. Will you go there?

Christmas always makes us think of Bethlehem, and Bethlehem is a precise place in the Holy Land where Jesus lived. On Christmas night, my thoughts turn especially to the Christians who live there, of those who are struggling, of the many many people who have had to leave that land for various reasons. But Bethlehem is still Bethlehem. God arrived at a specific point in time and space; God's tenderness and grace appeared there. We cannot think of Christmas without thinking of the Holy Land. Fifty years ago, Paul VI had the courage to come out and go there and this marked the beginning of the era of papal journeys. I too would like to go there, to meet my brother Bartholomew; the Patriarch of Constantinople, and commemorate this 50th anniversary with him, renewing that embrace which took place between Pope Montini and Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964. We are preparing for this.

You have met with gravely ill children on more than one occasion. What do you have to say about such innocent suffering?

Dostoevsky has taught me a great deal about life, and this was his question, explicitly and implicitly, and I have always wrestled with it in my heart: why do children suffer? There is no explanation. This image comes to my mind: there is a particular moment in life when a child "wakes up". The child doesn't understand much and he or she feels threatened and starts asking their mum or dad questions. This is the "why" age. And when children ask questions, they don't wait to hear the full answer, they just bombard you with more "why"s. What they are really looking for, more than an explanation, is a reassuring look on their parent's face. When I come across a suffering child, the only prayer that comes to mind is the "why" prayer. Why Lord? He doesn't explain anything to me. But I can feel him looking at me. So I can say: You know why, I don't and You won't tell me, but You're looking at me and I trust You, Lord, I trust your gaze.

Speaking of children's suffering, we can't forget the tragedy of those who are suffering from hunger.

With all the food that is left over and thrown away we could feed so many. If we were able to stop wasting and start recycling food, world hunger would diminish Featly. I was struck by one statistic, which says that 10,000 children die of hunger each day across the world. There are so many children that cry because they arc hungry. At the Wednesday General Audience the other day there was a young mother behind one of the barriers with a baby that was just a few months old. The child was crying his eyes out as I came past. The mother was caressing him. I said to her: madam, I think the baby's hungry. "Yes, it's probably time..." she replied. "Please give him something to eat!" I said. She was shy and didn't want to breastfeed publicly while the Pope was passing. I want to say the same to humanity: give people something to eat! That woman had milk to give to her child; we have enough food in the world to feed everyone. If we work with humanitarian organizations and are able to agree all together not to waste food, sending it instead to those who need it, we could do so much to help solve the problem of hunger in the world. I would like to repeat to humanity what I said to that mother: give food to those who are hungry! May the hope and tenderness of the Christmas of the Lord shake off our indifference.

Some of the passages in the 'Evangelii Gaudium' attracted criticism from so-called ultraconservatives' in the USA. As a Pope, how does it feel to be called a 'Marxist'?

The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people; so I don't feel offended.

The most striking part of the Exhortation was its reference to an economy that "kills"...

There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social doctrine of the Church. I wasn't speaking from a technical point of view, what I tried to do was provide a snapshot of what is happening. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding "trickle-down theories" which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger and nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church's social doctrine. And this does not mean being a Marxist.

You announced a "conversion of the papacy". Did a concrete path emerge from your encounters with the Orthodox Patriarchs?

John Paul II spoke even more explicitly about a way of exercising primacy that is open to a new situation. Not just from the point of view of ecumenical relations but also as regards relations with the Curia and local Churches. Over the course of these first nine months, I have received visits from many Orthodox brothers. Bartholomew, Hilarion, the theologian Zizioulas, the Copt Tawadros. The latter is a mystic, he would enter the chapel, remove his shoes and go and pray. I felt like their brother. They have the apostolic succession; I received them as brother bishops. It is painful that we are not yet able to celebrate the Eucharist together, but there is friendship. I believe that the way forward is this: friendship, common work and prayer for unity. We blessed each other; one brother blesses the other, one brother is called Peter and the other Andrew, Mark, Thomas.

Is Christian unity a priority for you?

Yes, for me ecumenism is a priority. Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries, they kill Christians for wearing a cross or carrying a Bible, and before they kill them they do not ask whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Our blood is mixed. To those who kill, we are Christians. We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps towards unity and perhaps the time has not yet come. Unity is a gift and we have to ask for it. I knew a parish priest in Hamburg who was working for the cause of beatification of a Catholic priest guillotined by the Nazis for teaching children the catechism. Just after him on the list of condemned individuals was a Lutheran pastor who was killed for the same reason. Their blood was mixed. The parish priest told me he had gone to the bishop and said to him: "I will continue to work for the cause, but both of their causes, not just the Catholic priest's." This is what the ecumenism of blood is. It exists today; you just need to read the newspapers. Those who kill Christians won't ask for your identity card to see which Church you were baptised in. We have to take these things into consideration.

In the Apostolic Exhortation you called for prudent and bold pastoral choices regarding the sacraments. What were you referring to?

When I speak of prudence I do not mean a paralyzing attitude but the virtue of a leader. Prudence is a virtue of governing. So is bravery. One must govern with courage and prudence. I spoke about baptism and communion as spiritual food that helps one to go on; it is to be considered a remedy not a prize. Some immediately thought about the sacraments for remarried divorcees, but I did not refer to any specific cases; I simply wanted to point out a principle. We must try to facilitate people s faith rather than control it. Last year in Argentina I condemned the attitude of some priests who did not baptise the children of unmarried mothers. That is a sick mentality.

And what about the civilly remarried divorcees?

The exclusion of divorced people who are living in a second union from communion is not a sanction. It is important to remember this. But I didn't talk about that in the Exhortation.

Will this issue be dealt with at the next Synod of Bishops?

The synodal nature of the Church is important: we will discuss marriage in all its complexity at the Consistory meetings in February. These issues will also be addressed at the Extraordinary Synod in October 2014 and again at the Ordinary Synod the following year. Many elements will be examined in more detail and clarified during these sessions.

How is the work of your eight "advisors" on Curia reform proceeding?

There is a lot of work to do; Those who wanted to make proposals or submit ideas have done so. Cardinal Bertello has gathered the views of all Vatican dicasteries. We received suggestions from bishops all around the world. At the last meeting, the eight cardinals told me the time has come for concrete proposals and at the next meeting in February they will present their suggestions to me. I am always present at the meetings, except for Wednesday mornings when I have the General Audience. But I don't speak, I just listen and that is good for me. A few months ago, an elderly cardinal said to me: "You have already started Curia reform with your daily masses in the Santa Marta," This made me think: reform always begins with spiritual and pastoral initiatives before structural changes.

What is is right relationship between the Church and politics?

The relationship needs to be both parallel and convergent. Parallel, because everyone has their own path and respective tasks. Convergent only in helping the people. When relationships converge first, without the people, or without taking the people into account, that is when the bond with political power is formed, leading the Church to rot: business, compromises.... The relationship needs to proceed in a parallel way, each with its own method, tasks and vocation, converging only in the common good. Politics is noble; it is one of the highest forms of charity, as Paul VI used to say. We sully it when we mix it with business. The relationship between the Church and political power can also be corrupted if common good is not the only converging point.

May I ask if the Church will have women cardinals in the future?

I don't know where this idea came from. Women in the Church must be valued, not "clericalised". Whoever thinks about women cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.

How is the 'Istituto per le opere di Religione' (IOR) clean-up going?

The commissions for reference are making good progress. Moneyval has given us a positive report and we are on the right path. As regards the future of the IOR, we will see. For example, the Vatican's "central bank" is supposed to be APSA (The Administration for the Patrimony of the Holy See). The IOR was established to assist religious works, missions and poor Churches. Then it became what it is now.

Could you have imagined a year ago that you would be celebrating Christmas 2013 in St Peter's?

Absolutely not.

Were you expecting to be elected?

No, I didn't expect it. I never lost my peace as the number of votes increased. I remained calm. And that peace is still there, I consider it a gift from the Lord. When the final scrutiny was over, I was taken to the centre of the Sistine Chapel and asked if I would accept. I said yes and that I would be called Francis. Only then did I walk away. I was taken to the adjacent room to change (my cassock). Then,just before I stepped out, I knelt down to pray for some minutes in the Pauline chapel along with cardinals Vallini and Hummes.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20/27 December 2013, page 3

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